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Saturday, January 14, 2017

"The Happiest Kids in the World" (Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison)

TITLE: The Happiest Kids in the World: A Stress-Free Approach to Parenting_the Dutch Way
AUTHOR: Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: The Experiment, 2017, (272 pages).

Happy children makes for good children. This is the underlying philosophy of this book. Based on a 2013 UNICEF report that rated Dutch children as the 'happiest in the world,' authors Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison have come together with their personal testimonies of how true this is for them. They compare Dutch children in general with their American counterparts and found that Dutch babies are contented; easier to soothe; more restful; happier at play; and enjoy simple pleasures. They are quick to point out that 'happier' does not mean always jumping for joy but a kind of greater self-awareness; loyal; loving; and respectful of adults. They are less arrogant and more mature. While most of the world tend to see the Netherlands as a place of liberal living; free sex; and all kinds of drugs and alcohol over-consumption, they fail to see the heart of the society is a home-loving family. For them, success begins with an assumption of happiness not a hope for happiness. It begins with what we have rather than what we do not have. One reason is the amount of time spent in an enviable work-life balance: Parents work 29 hours a week and spend a day each for time with children and time for themselves. They let kids do things for themselves and both mum and dad are willing to switch roles without guilt. British and American parents still see their own specific roles and when the roles are changed, guilt and discomfort easily set in. When compared with their American counterparts, Dutch children:

  • Sleep better
  • Little or no homework at elementary school
  • Not just seen but heard
  • Trusted to go to school themselves on their bicycles
  • Allowed to play outside unsupervised
  • Regular family meals
  • Spend more time with parents
  • Enjoy simple pleasures
  • etc
Dutch children ride bicycles to school; play out in the streets; visit friends after school; have less homework; and have a higher rate of happiness in life. How did the Dutch do it? Is there some secret they have that most of us in other countries do not have? Authors Rina and Michele takes us on a journey through Dutchland, their school environment, their home and social networks, and more. Rina had lived in San Francisco for most of her life. As an Asian-American, she had lived through expectations of high academic achievements and the stressful Western paradigm of keeping up with the Joneses. After marrying a Dutch, and moving to the Netherlands, she discovers with fresh eyes a totally different environment. Michele too discovers how much the Dutch spend outdoors and how "child-centered society" is. Instead of parents choosing what secondary school the kids go to, it is the primary school that decides. Dutch parents also trust their children to make a decision when there is a list of choices. Lottery systems are also popularly used as it avoids any favouritism during the selection process.

Mothers give birth not in hospitals but in their homes. Instead of seeing birth as a medical condition, the Dutch see it as a normal condition, without painkillers, and without doctors! On top of that, the Netherlands rank among the safest places in the world to deliver children. Interestingly, compared to the American statistic of 1 C-section for every 3 births, the Dutch have a below 1 in 10 average. New born mothers and babies are seen as one instead of separate treatments. Whole neighbourhoods will know about the delivery of a child. Toddlers are not pushed toward tests or homework. Schooling is not a particularly stressful time for parents. Instead, parents are spoilt for choices. From the Italian Montessori to the German Jena Plan, religious as well as secular options; all were offered free. The Dutch even have a "Professor of Happiness!" In matters of discipline, the principle is teaching-based rather than punishment-based. A heavy emphasis is on how adults practice what they preach. There are other aspects like simple living; freedom living; happiness; eating; and even talking about sex!

I admit that the title is a bold claim to the crown of happiness. Are Dutch people really that happy? Ask different people and we would probably get different answers. In absolute terms it is hard to quantify or qualify what happiness is. In subjective terms, it is a lot clearer. Both Rina and Michele experience culture shock when they compare the way they were brought up with seeing the environment and culture their own children are growing up in. This very comparison could explain why they are so optimistic with everything Dutch. More likely it is seen relative to their own pressurized upbringing. Surely, the Dutch would offer a slightly different take than the two newbies into Dutch culture. While there are merits to Rina's and Michele's observations about the Dutch environment, we should not be too quick to dichotomize the world into Dutch and non-Dutch. There are pros and cons in every system around the world. Every system arise out of a particular context and a particular time. There are pointers that we can learn from one another. We do not need to agree with all of the authors' assertions but we can appreciate the contrast, reminding us that no one system is perfect. We are all learning. Blessed is the society that is humble and willing to learn from others. Coming from a Western culture, the biggest reason to read this book is to know that there are other methods besides making our kids go through the 'normal' way of growing up. This book would compel us to think out of the box and to consider alternative strategies when it comes to parenting. Hopefully, our next generation would benefit from a strong and resilient hybrid of the best systems in the world, including the Dutch of course.

Rina Mae Acosta is a Filipino-American living with her Dutch husband. Her blog post "The 8 Secrets of Dutch Kids, the Happiest Kids in the World" had gone viral since it was published. She enjoys the ordinary things of life with her two boys. Michele Hutchison moved to Amsterdam from London in 2004 and lives with her Dutch husband and kids. Both of them have been fascinated by the Dutch way of parenting which led to the creation of this book.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of The Experiment LLC and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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